Baseball behind barbed wire

The World

In the 1920s and 1930s, Japanese immigrant communities across America formed semi-pro baseball leagues. They had actually brought baseball with them from Japan. A U.S. Professor, Horace Wilson, introduced the sport to the Japanese in the 1870s.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 changed everything. Japanese and Japanese-Americans were ordered into a series of relocation centers throughout the American West and Southwest. People had to leave everything behind. They were not allowed to earn money or practice their religion or even speak Japanese. But the camp directors did let them do one thing: play ball. They built fields and formed teams and leagues.

"Grass infields, grass outfields, they had 10 feet caster beams as a home run fence, they used flour to chalk the lines," says Kerry Nakagawa, director of the Nissei Baseball Project. For the past few years, he has also been involved in the making of a feature-length film about the experience in the internment camps. The film is not just about baseball; its also about the war.

In the film, one character gets out of the camp by volunteering for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The 442 was a unit entirely composed of Asian-Americans. The 442 saw heavy action across Europe, and were among the first troops to reach the gates of the Dachau concentration camp. The 442 went on to become the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. military, with 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

For those that remained in the internment camps, baseball became what Nakagawa calls "a saving grace, and the ball players are finally getting the recognition they deserve."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.